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‘The Unwomanly Face of War’ by Svetlana Alexievich ****

Svetlana Alexievich’s ‘classic oral history’ The Unwomanly Face of War has recently been released in its first English version, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.  I was so excited to pick up a copy, fascinated as I am by Russian history and the Second World War, both of which Alexievich’s work encompasses.

During the Second World War, ‘about a million women fought in the Soviet army,’ Alexievich writes in her introduction.  ‘They mastered all military specialties, including the most “masculine” ones.  A linguistic problem even emerged: no feminine gender had existed till then for the words “tank driver,” “infantryman,” “machine gunner,” because women had never done that work.  The feminine forms were born there, in the war’.  Belarusian Alexievich then goes on to discuss her experiences growing up just after the war in Ukraine, when tragedy affected everyone: ‘We didn’t know a world without war; the world of war was the only one familiar to us, and the people of war were the only people we knew.’

Alexievich, 9780141983523an investigative journalist, wanted to write an account about women, and of their experiences in conflict.  Her reasoning and justification for writing The Unwomanly Face of War are strong.  She saw the existing reportage of wartime accounts flawed, due to their masculine leanings.  She writes: ‘There have been a thousand wars – small and big, known and unknown.  And still more has been written about them.  But… it was men writing about men – that much was clear at once.  Everything we know about war we know with “a man’s voice.”‘  She goes on to exemplify the highly varied experiences of women, and their often far more emotive accounts.  ‘”Women’s” war,’ she points out, ‘has its own colors, its own smells, its own lighting, and its own range of feelings.  Its own words.  There are no heroes and incredible feats, there are simply people who are busy doing inhumanly human things.’

It was markedly important for Alexievich to speak to as many women as she could, and in consequence, she is able to share ‘stories of women’s experiences in World War II on the front lines, on the home front, and in occupied territories.’  To collect the testimonies, she took ‘dozens of trips all over the country, hundreds of recorded cassettes, thousands of yards of tape.  Five hundred meetings, after which I stopped counting; faces left in my memory, only voices remained.  A chorus resounds in my memory.  An enormous chorus; sometimes the words almost cannot be heard, only the weeping.’  Accounts came from Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.  She interviewed snipers, drivers, traffic controllers, liaison officers, nurses, paramedics, mechanics, telephone operators, pilots, and partisans, to create her multilayered portrait of women in war.

Alexievich is aware of the flaws to be found in any project of this kind, primarily the validity of what she is being told, as there is no way to verify individual accounts.  She says, ‘but the narrators are not only witnesses – least of all are they witnesses, they are actors and makers.  It is impossible to go right up to reality.  Between us and reality are our feelings.’  Her aim here is to portray the ‘sickening’ futility of war, and its far-reaching effects: ‘I write not about war, but about human beings in war.  I write not the history of a war, but the history of feelings.  I am a historian of the soul.’

The Unwomanly Face of War, as far as it can be judged to be so, feels candid.  Both the accounts which have been transposed, and Muller’s intelligent and measured commentary, are expressive and immersive.  Whilst the accounts themselves are sometimes very matter-of-fact, and verge upon the simplistic with regard to their language, they are often horrific and difficult to read.  The Unwomanly Face of War is such an important historical document, touching and tender.  Alexievich has included fragments of so many stories which deserve to be told.

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‘Anne Frank: The Biography’ by Melissa Muller *****

I purchased a revised and expanded edition of Melissa Muller’s Anne Frank: The Biography on an affecting trip to the Anne Frank Huis in Amsterdam last year.  I have been so looking forward to reading it, but for some reason – emotional turmoil over Anne’s story, I expect, which never fails to bring me to tears – it took me some time to pick it up.  The Sunday Telegraph deems Muller’s biography ‘sensitive, serious and scrupulous’, and the Independent believes it to be an ‘accurate and honest portrait’.  The New York Times writes that Anne Frank: The Biography ‘acts as a supplement to the diary, filling in Anne’s fragmentary view of her own life’.

9781408842102I have read Anne’s own diary – which has sold more than thirty million copies in over seventy languages to date – countless times, as well as rather a few books about her, but Anne Frank: The Biography has become one of my absolute favourites.  It has been translated from its original German by Rita and Robert Kimber.  In this updated edition, Muller ‘details new theories surrounding the family’s betrayal, revelations about the pressure put on their helpers by the Nazi party and the startling discovery that the Franks had applied for a visa to the US.’

In her foreword, Muller writes of Anne’s importance: ‘Over the past sixty years, Anne Frank has become a universal symbol of the oppressed in a world of violence and tyranny.  Her name invokes humanity, tolerance, human rights, and democracy; her image is the epitome of optimism and the will to live.’  Upon her initial reading of Anne’s diary, Muller had many questions which were left unanswered; this inspired her to research and write Anne Frank: The Biography.  At this point, she says, ‘my search began – initially in the 1990s – to search for the person behind the legend, a search for the incidents and events that shaped the life and personality of Annelies Marie Frank.’  Her aim, she goes on, ‘was to gather as many fragments of the mosaic as possible and create as authentic a picture of Anne’s brief life as I could, illuminating the familial and social circumstances that provided the foundation of her life and left their mark on it.’

Anne Frank: The Biography opens with a copy of the Frank and Hollander family trees, which become useful to refer to when grandparents and great-grandparents are introduced into the narrative.  The initial chapter of the book opens on a scene in August 1944.  This, at first, seems like an ordinary day in the annexe in which Anne and her family, along with others, are hiding, but it proves to be the day on which they are discovered by the Dutch Nazis.  After they have been taken away, Muller describes how Miep and Bep, office workers who helped them to hide, retrieve Anne’s diary, not reading a single page so as to protect her privacy.  They hoped to be able to give it back to her after the war.

The second chapter then begins with Anne’s birth in Frankfurt, where her family lived on the outskirts of the city.  Of their new arrival, the Franks ‘had worried that Margot might be jealous of the baby, but Margot laughed with delight when she saw her.  Anne’s ears stuck out comically, and her wild black hair was silky and soft.’  A chronological timeline is followed from this chapter onward, and we are able to chart Anne’s progress as she grows, and becomes more independent.  Particular attention is paid to the craft of Anne’s writing, wishing as she did to become a novelist when she grew up.  ‘Her style,’ Muller writes, ‘improved rapidly, with astonishing speed considering her age…  The more she wrote, the sharper her observations became and the clearer her expression of those observations; the keener, too, her understanding of others and – as if she could step outside herself and look back in – of herself as well.  What she had begun in adolescent dreaminess ultimately achieved, in many passages, a maturity that was as convincing as it was astonishing.’

Political and social occurrences, particularly those which relate to the restrictions placed upon Jewish people, run alongside the lives of the Frank family.  This social context has been provided throughout, and adds depth and understanding.  Upon the German invasion of the Netherlands in May 1940, for instance, Muller states: ‘In one day the social structure of Holland had been transformed.  Where once there had been rich and poor, an upper and a lower class, a right wing and a left wing, and various religious blocs, now only one criterion distinguished good from bad, friend from enemy: was a person anti-German or pro-German?’  Along with historical facts, Muller weaves in the interested and intelligent Anne’s own opinions.  Upon the surrender of the Netherlands, ‘Anne was outraged…  Surrender was a concept she was hearing about for the first time, and she didn’t like the sound of it.  It didn’t suit her character.’

Counter to its title, Anne Frank: The Biography is not simply a biographical account of Anne; it includes details of both her immediate and extended family members on both sides, as well as accounts of family friends, and her schoolmates.  Photographs have been dotted throughout, which adds to the narrative, and shows those around Anne, first in Germany, and then in Amsterdam, where her family moved when she was small.  Perhaps most moving in terms of these portraits is the impression we receive of her doting father, Otto.  When writing about Anne and Margot’s friends in Amsterdam, Muller says: ‘The greatest delight of all was Mr. Frank.  His wife was always there and always friendly, but the children hardly noticed her; they took such things for granted in mothers.  But Otto Frank, at almost six feet a tall man for those days, was special.  With Mr. Frank you could talk and joke about anything.  He made up games, told stories, always had a comforting word, and seemed to forgive Anne everything…  Otto’s high spirits were truly infectious.  And when he was at home he spent more time with his children than most other fathers did.’  Of course, Anne is always the central focus here, but more of an understanding of her character can be gained from seeing those around her.

Muller is so understanding of Anne’s character and qualities, and notes how great an effect being in the annexe had for her: ‘At a time when a young person is recalcitrant and restless, defiant and temperamental, full of questions and searching for answers, baffled, helpless, and often irritable, Anne had no outlets for her feelings, no way to let off steam…  Anne herself described the period from 1942 until well into 1943 as a difficult time.  In the long days of loneliness and despair and of conflict not only with her housemates but also and primarily with herself, Kitty and the diary became her closest confidants.’

Muller’s prose style makes Anne Frank: The Biography a very easy book to read; it is intelligent and measured, not to mention packed with detail, but it still feels readily accessible.  The biography is considerate and meticulously researched and, as one would expect, is both touching and harrowing throughout.  Anne Frank: The Biography is a moving and detailed tribute to a remarkable young woman, and works as the perfect companion to The Diary of a Young Girl.

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‘Love From Boy: Roald Dahl’s Letters to His Mother’, edited by Donald Sturrock ****

I really enjoyed Donald Sturrock’s biography of Roald Dahl, Storyteller, when I read it a couple of years ago.  I was thus very excited to read Love From Boy: Roald Dahl’s Letters to His Mother, which Sturrock edited.  Whilst on yet another (largely unsuccessful) book-buying ban at the time of purchase, Love From Boy looked far too lovely to pass up when I spotted a single copy in Fopp.

From his early childhood, when he was sent away to boarding school, Roald Dahl sent one letter each week to his Norwegian mother, Sofie Magdalene; he continued this habit into adulthood, and ‘unbeknown to Roald, his mother lovingly kept every single one of them.’  Of this practice, Sturrock writes: ‘Sofie was, in many ways, Roald’s first reader.  It was she who encouraged him to tell stories and nourished his desire to fabricate, exaggerate 9781444786286and entertain.’  She clearly had an enormous influence upon him, nurturing him, and facilitating his love for plants and never-ending greed for homemade cakes and food parcels.  Indeed, Dahl later ‘acknowledged her as the source for his own interest in horticulture, cooking, wine, paintings, furniture and animals.  She was the “mater familias”, his constant reference-point and guide.’

In Love From Boy, we are able to ‘witness Roald Dahl turning from a boy to a man, and finally becoming a writer.’  Michael Rosen heralds Sturrock’s effort here, believing that his ‘commentary on the letters is meticulous, thoughtful and kind.’  I found this to be true with Storyteller too; it is so well-informed, and so sympathetic, without feeling overly sentimental, or glossing over any details.  A lot of thought has been put into the accompanying comments in Love From Boy, and into which of the letters should be included here.  As readers, Sturrock has allowed us to step into Sofie’s shoes; ‘we can experience his adventures, recounted in his own unique voice: a delightful and sometimes disconcerting mixture of honesty, humour, earthiness and fantasy.’

Literary Review captures the spirit of these letters wonderfully, writing that this is: ‘An entertaining and eye-opening collection…  it is his younger self that is captured here – jaunty and anarchic, yet a recognisable forerunner of that more subtly anarchic, stooping, cardiganed figure who was the world-famous author, gazing out on the world from his garden shed with watery, mischievous eyes.’  The correspondence of authors, from my experience of reading quite a few collections, often shows a different side to them entirely.  Fans of Dahl’s fun and quirky children’s books may be surprised at how much heartbreak he had in his life, and these letters do show that he had a very serious side, contrary to that which he revealed in much of his writing.

The cache of more than 600 letters which Sturrock had to choose from for this collection end two years before Sofie’s death.  Roald was bequeathed the letters, all of which had been kept in their original envelopes, after her death in 1967.  Unfortunately, none of Sofie’s letters to Roald have been recovered, and so her part in proceedings, says Sturrock, is ‘more mysterious’.  Evidently so aware of Dahl’s life and feelings, he points out that many elements and emotions were left out of these letters entirely.  He says that they are ‘interesting for what they do not say.  They seldom convey self-pity or unhappiness…  In that situation [of school-imposed censorship in his early correspondence], admitting vulnerability was treated with scorn and derision.’  There is a sense throughout of Dahl trying to protect his mother, putting a gloss on the harder things which he experiences so as not to worry her; an example of this is when he was horrendously bullied at school, but just put it down to boyish high-jinx in his letters home.

Sturrock has chosen to split these ‘remarkable’ letters into seven main sections, spanning specific periods between 1925 and 1965.  The letters themselves were sent to Sofie from Weston-Super-Mare and Kenya, from Egypt and Texas, from Iraq and Canada.  They detail Dahl’s experiences with the Royal Air Force during the Second World War, and the various postings he was given, many of which he had to be rather secretive about.  The approach which Sturrock has made here is wonderful; he provides an index of locations, along with corresponding symbols for each, and has mapped them too.

Love From Boy is so nicely laid out, and include copies of Dahl’s original letters at times.  The introductions to each section are heartfelt; Sturrock helps to contextualise the letters, as well as adding thoughtful comments and biographical details.  In the second section, for example, when Dahl is at his second boarding school, Sturrock says: ‘Whether tobogganing down a hill, rioting on a train, chucking powder around his dormitory, or climbing illicitly up the tower of Repton Church, the letters convey an exultant and infectious delight in the adventures of childhood, and a sense that these simple, unsophisticated pleasures can put misery and adversity to flight.’

Some of what Dahl recounts in his letters is so matter-of-fact that it becomes comical.  In January 1927, at the age of ten, for instance, he writes: ‘I have not eaten any of what you gave me accept [sic] one little chocolate, and on Bristol Station Hoggart was sick, and when I looked at it I was sick but now I am quite all right.’  The way in which he writes is often charming and warmhearted, and his vocabulary very of its time; he speaks of a ‘topping lecture’, of a schoolmaster who has ‘got a long hanging ginger moustache, and is quite fat’, and asks, in 1927, ‘How much are the monkeys at Harrods?  It would be rather nice to have one.’  Later, hilarious satirical comments are made about political figures, the likes of Hitler and Goebbels.  When living in Dar es Salaam in 1939, Dahl writes: ‘It’s pleasant lying back and listening and at the same time watching the antics of Hitler and Mussolini who are invariably on the ceiling catching flies and mosquitoes.  Perhaps I should explain that Hitler and Mussolini are 2 lizards which live in our sitting room.’

Love From Boy is such an endearing collection, and is a lovely book for any fan of Dahl’s to read.  Sturrock’s selections give an insight both into Dahl’s life and his relationship with his mother, and allow readers to chart his changing loves and interests as time passes.  Love From Boy is, too, a fantastic piece of social and biographical history, which is both entertaining and touching from start to finish.  The letters here are full of character, as one would expect, and are a true delight to read.

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Books for Pride

I am a little late in creating this post, but thought it would be a nice way to mark Pride, which is occurring worldwide during the month of June.  I have put together a list of ten books with LGBTQIA protagonists or themes, some of which I have read, and some of which are on my to-read list.

317062591. Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day by Peter Ackroyd
In Queer City Peter Ackroyd looks at London in a whole new way – through the history and experiences of its gay population.  In Roman Londinium the city was dotted with lupanaria (‘wolf dens’ or public pleasure houses), fornices (brothels) and thermiae (hot baths). Then came the Emperor Constantine, with his bishops, monks and missionaries. And so began an endless loop of alternating permissiveness and censure.  Ackroyd takes us right into the hidden history of the city; from the notorious Normans to the frenzy of executions for sodomy in the early nineteenth century. He journeys through the coffee bars of sixties Soho to Gay Liberation, disco music and the horror of AIDS.  Today, we live in an era of openness and tolerance and Queer London has become part of the new norm. Ackroyd tells us the hidden story of how it got there, celebrating its diversity, thrills and energy on the one hand; but reminding us of its very real terrors, dangers and risks on the other.
2. Transgender History by Susan Stryker
‘Covering American transgender history from the mid-twentieth century to today, Transgender History takes a chronological approach to the subject of transgender history, with each chapter covering major movements, writings, and events. Chapters cover the transsexual and transvestite communities in the years following World War II; trans radicalism and social change, which spanned from 1966 with the publication of The Transsexual Phenomenon, and lasted through the early 1970s; the mid-’70s to 1990-the era of identity politics and the changes witnessed in trans circles through these years; and the gender issues witnessed through the ’90s and ’00s.  Transgender History includes informative sidebars highlighting quotes from major texts and speeches in transgender history and brief biographies of key players, plus excerpts from transgender memoirs and discussion of treatments of transgenderism in popular culture.
3. A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood 16059558
When A Single Man was originally published, it shocked many by its frank, sympathetic, and moving portrayal of a gay man in midlife. George, the protagonist, is adjusting to life on his own after the sudden death of his partner, determined to persist in the routines of his daily life. An Englishman and a professor living in suburban Southern California, he is an outsider in every way, and his internal reflections and interactions with others reveal a man who loves being alive despite everyday injustices and loneliness. Wry, suddenly manic, constantly funny, surprisingly sad, this novel catches the texture of life itself.
4. Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman
Call Me by Your Name is the story of a sudden and powerful romance that blossoms between an adolescent boy and a summer guest at his parents’ cliff-side mansion on the Italian Riviera. Unprepared for the consequences of their attraction, at first each feigns indifference. But during the restless summer weeks that follow, unrelenting buried currents of obsession and fear, fascination and desire, intensify their passion as they test the charged ground between them. What grows from the depths of their spirits is a romance of scarcely six weeks’ duration and an experience that marks them for a lifetime. For what the two discover on the Riviera and during a sultry evening in Rome is the one thing both already fear they may never truly find again: total intimacy.  The psychological maneuvers that accompany attraction have seldom been more shrewdly captured than in André Aciman’s frank, unsentimental, heartrending elegy to human passion. Call Me by Your Name is clear-eyed, bare-knuckled, and ultimately unforgettable.
325612375. Beyond Trans: Does Gender Matter? by Heath Fogg Davis
Beyond Trans pushes the conversation on gender identity to its limits: questioning the need for gender categories in the first place. Whether on birth certificates or college admissions applications or on bathroom doors, why do we need to mark people and places with sex categories? Do they serve a real purpose or are these places and forms just mechanisms of exclusion? Heath Fogg Davis offers an impassioned call to rethink the usefulness of dividing the world into not just Male and Female categories but even additional categories of Transgender and gender fluid. Davis, himself a transgender man, explores the underlying gender-enforcing policies and customs in American life that have led to transgender bathroom bills, college admissions controversies, and more, arguing that it is necessary for our society to take real steps to challenge the assumption that gender matters.  He examines four areas where we need to re-think our sex-classification systems: sex-marked identity documents such as birth certificates, driver’s licenses and passports; sex-segregated public restrooms; single-sex colleges; and sex-segregated sports. Speaking from his own experience and drawing upon major cases of sex discrimination in the news and in the courts, Davis presents a persuasive case for challenging how individuals are classified according to sex and offers concrete recommendations for alleviating sex identity discrimination and sex-based disadvantage.  For anyone in search of pragmatic ways to make our world more inclusive, Davis’ recommendations provide much-needed practical guidance about how to work through this complex issue. A provocative call to action, Beyond Trans pushes us to think how we can work to make America truly inclusive of all people.
6. The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth
When Cameron Post’s parents die suddenly in a car crash, her shocking first thought is relief. Relief they’ll never know that, hours earlier, she had been kissing a girl.  But that relief doesn’t last, and Cam is soon forced to move in with her conservative aunt Ruth and her well-intentioned but hopelessly old-fashioned grandmother. She knows that from this point on, her life will forever be different. Survival in Miles City, Montana, means blending in and leaving well enough alone (as her grandmother might say), and Cam becomes an expert at both.  Then Coley Taylor moves to town. Beautiful, pickup-driving Coley is a perfect cowgirl with the perfect boyfriend to match. She and Cam forge an unexpected and intense friendship — one that seems to leave room for something more to emerge. But just as that starts to seem like a real possibility, ultrareligious Aunt Ruth takes drastic action to ‘fix’ her niece, bringing Cam face-to-face with the cost of denying her true self — even if she’s not exactly sure who that is.  The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a stunning and unforgettable literary debut about discovering who you are and finding the courage to live life according to your own rules.
7. Unbecoming by Jenny Downham 25582543
Three women – three secrets – one heart-stopping story. Katie, seventeen, in love with someone whose identity she can’t reveal. Her mother Caroline, uptight, worn out and about to find the past catching up with her. Katie’s grandmother, Mary, back with the family after years of mysterious absence and ‘capable of anything’, despite suffering from Alzheimers. As Katie cares for an elderly woman who brings daily chaos to her life, she finds herself drawn to her. Rules get broken as allegiances shift. Is Mary contagious? Is ‘badness’ genetic? In confronting the past, Katie is forced to seize the present. As Mary slowly unravels and family secrets are revealed, Katie learns to live and finally dares to love. Funny, sad, honest and wise, Unbecoming is a celebration of life, and learning to honour your own stories.
8. Night Sky With Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong
Ocean Vuong’s first full-length collection aims straight for the perennial “big”—and very human—subjects of romance, family, memory, grief, war, and melancholia. None of these he allows to overwhelm his spirit or his poems, which demonstrate, through breath and cadence and unrepentant enthrallment, that a gentle palm on a chest can calm the fiercest hungers.
63446649. Skim by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki
Heartbreakingly funny, moving and vibrantly drawn, Skim is an extraordinary book–a smart and sensitive graphic novel of the highest literary and artistic quality, by and about young women.  “Skim” is Kimberly Keiko Cameron, a not-slim, would-be Wiccan goth who goes to a private girls’ school. When Skim’s classmate Katie Matthews is dumped by her boyfriend, who then kills himself, the entire school goes into mourning overdrive. As concerned guidance counselors provide lectures on the “cycle of grief,” and the popular clique starts a new club (Girls Celebrate Life!) to bolster school spirit, Skim sinks into an ever-deepening depression.   And falling in love only makes things worse…  Suicide, depression, love, being gay or not, crushes, cliques, and finding a way to be your own fully human self–are all explored in this brilliant collaboration by cousins Mariko and Jillian Tamaki. An edgy, keenly observed and poignant glimpse into the heartache of being young.
10. We Are Okay by Nina LaCour
Marin hasn’t spoken to anyone from her old life since the day she left everything behind. No one knows the truth about those final weeks. Not even her best friend, Mabel. But even thousands of miles away from the California coast, at college in New York, Marin still feels the pull of the life and tragedy she’s tried to outrun. Now, months later, alone in an emptied dorm for winter break, Marin waits. Mabel is coming to visit, and Marin will be forced to face everything that’s been left unsaid and finally confront the loneliness that has made a home in her heart.

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which are your favourites with LGBTQIA themes or characters?  Have you read anything specifically to celebrate Pride this month?

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‘First They Killed My Father’ by Loung Ung ****

I have wanted to read Loung Ung’s memoir, First They Killed My Father, for years, and was able to schedule it as the Cambodia stop on my Around the World in 80 Books challenge.   This work, which details Ung’s experiences with the Cambodian genocide, is subtitled ‘A daughter of Cambodia remembers’, and is an incredibly poignant record of a young life spoiled, first by civil war, and then by a dictatorship.

Spending her formative years, and losing half of her family, during Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge seems as vivid for Ung now as it was at the time.  The second youngest of seven children born to a high-ranking government official, Ung led a prosperous life in Phnom Penh.  When the Khmer Rouge Army marched into the city in April 1975, Ung and her family had to flee, moving from one village to another in order to keep hidden; she was just five years old.  Later, the family had to split up almost entirely in order to enable them a stronger chance of survival.  Through various means – ‘execution, starvation, disease, and forced labour’ – the Khmer Rouge is thought to have killed almost a quarter of Cambodia’s population, estimated at a horrifying 2 million citizens.9780756984823

First published in 2000, Ung begins her recollections at the point of being driven out of her home in 1975.  The memoir spans just five years, but is incredibly tumultuous.  Ung has chosen to present her memoir using the present tense, which gives it a real sense of urgency.  From the very beginning, Ung’s childish innocence of the time shines through: ‘Pa always defends me – to everybody.  He often says that people just don’t understand how cleverness works in a child and that all these troublesome things I do are actually signs of strength and intelligence.  Whether or not Pa is right, I believe him.  I believe everything he tells me.’  The prose continues in this rather simplistic manner throughout; as she tells her story, Ung seems to inhabit the voice of her childhood.

The cultural information which Ung imparts alongside her own memoirs is fascinating.  There is a finely honed sense of place and atmosphere throughout.  When they are forced to flee, Ung makes clear that every family, no matter their position or standing, wwere driven out of cities all over Cambodia over the course of several days: ‘People pour out of their homes and into the streets, moving very slowly…  Everywhere, people scream their good-byes to those who choose to stay behind; tears pour from their eyes…  the world moves in hurried confusion from the city.’  The landscape changes rapidly as the family leave Phnom Penh in their truck: ‘… the wide, paved boulevard gives way to windy, dusty roads that are no more than wagon trails.  Tall elephant grass and prickly, brown brush have replaced Phnom Penh’s blooming flowers and tall trees.’

Despite her age, Ung is able to understand the roots of what drives her family away from all they know: ‘Keav [her older sister] tells me the soldiers claim to love Cambodia and its people very much.  I wonder then why they are this mean if they like us so much.  I cheered for them earlier today, but now I am afraid of them.’  Her family live in constant fear, and this trickles down to Ung.  She writes: ‘At five years old, I am beginning to know what loneliness feels like, silent and alone and suspecting that everyone wants to hurt me.’  The young Ung has so much strength and determination, which is incredible given the conditions she is forced to live under.

First They Killed My Father is harrowing, and incredibly moving.  Ung describes, along with her own experiences, those things which affected all of her fellow Cambodians.  So much changed; religion was banned, and children were made to work instead of pursuing their education.  People were made to live under horrendous conditions: ‘The population in the village is growing smaller by the day.  Many people have died, mostly from starvation, some from eating poisonous food, others killed by soldiers.  Our family is slowly starving to death and yet, each day, the government reduces our food ration.  Hunger, always there is hunger.  We have eaten everything that is edible, from rotten leaves on the ground to the roots we dig up.’

As time passes, Ung becomes almost entirely desensitised to the death and suffering around her.  She does, however, still retain some knowledge of the wonder of the world, which she was familiar with during her time in Phnom Penh: ‘The next evening, while sitting with [her brother] Kim outside on the steps of our hut, I think how the world is still somehow beautiful even when I feel no joy at being alive within it.  It is still dark and the shimmering sunset of red, gold, and purple over the horizon makes the sky look magical.  Maybe there are gods living up there after all.  When are they going to come down and bring peace to our land?’  First They Killed My Father is a startling and important record of a ruined childhood, which I would urge everyone to read.

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Two Books About Haiti

I have noticed of late that a few reading friends tend to theme the books which they read, choosing several about the same topic and reading them in quick succession.  Having been granted two galleys about Haiti at around the same time, I thought that I would read them back to back, for what I hoped would be an immersive cultural experience.  One of the books, Roxane Gay’s Ayiti, is a short story collection, and the other, Maps Are Lines We Draw by Alison Coffelt, is a travel memoir.

9781472154170

 

Ayiti by Roxane Gay ****
I have heard nothing but praise for Roxane Gay, and this collection of tales set entirely in Haiti – ‘a place run through with pain’ – really appealed to me.  Ayiti is accurately described in its blurb as ‘a powerful collection exploring the Haitian diaspora experience’.  Some of the stories included are little more than vignettes, or fragments of tales, examining one or two elements of the migrant experience, and covering just a couple of pages.  Others are much longer, and have a lot of depth to them.

Gay’s prose has a sensual vivacity to it.  The second story, ‘About My Father’s Accent’, for example, begins: ‘He knows it’s there.  He knows it’s thick, thicker even than my mother’s.  He’s been on American soil for nearly thirty years, but his voice sounds like Port-au-Prince, the crowded streets, the blaring horns, the smell of grilled meat and roasting corn, the heat, thick and still.’

Many themes are touched upon and tackled here.  Gay writes about racism, misconceptions about the Haitian culture, superstition, medicine, tradition, sex and sexuality, violence, crime, the changing face of Haiti over time, and the family unit.  The stories in Ayiti are emotive and thought-provoking; every single story, no matter its length, is memorable, and there is a real power to the collection.

 

Maps Are Lines We Draw: A Roadtrip Through Haiti by Allison Coffelt ** cover127304-medium
Throughout Maps Are Lines We Draw, Allison Coffelt rather briefly details a trip which she takes across Haiti, along with Dr. Jean Gardy Marius, founder of the public health organisation OSAPO.  In Haiti, she writes, ‘she embarked on a life-changing journey that would weave Haiti’s proud, tumultuous history and present reality into her life forever.’

Maps Are Lines We Draw is rather a short travel memoir, told using an entirely fragmented style which weaves together experiences from Coffelt’s trip, childhood memories, and many facts about Haiti.  Whilst it was interesting enough to read about her trip, there was quite a jarring edge to the structure.  I found it quite bitty and inconsistent due to the seemingly randomly placed fragments of thought and memory.  The author uses a lot of quotes from various guides, but there is rarely an exploration of them; rather, they feel like random appendages which have been placed willy-nilly in order to make up a wordcount in a GCSE essay.  At several points, it read simply like a factbook.

I love the fragmented style of prose when it is used in fiction, but I do not feel as though it works well with regard to non-fiction.  There needs to be an overarching, controlled structure for works such as this.  Only the sections on Haiti’s history have been approached well.  Whilst Maps Are Lines We Draw is enlightening in some ways, it is markedly problematic and frustrating in others.

 

 

I have very much enjoyed my first deliberate experience of reading two books with very similar subject matter, despite enjoying one far more than the other!  Is this something that you personally do often?  Do you have any books along the same themes, or about the same topic or geographical location, which you would recommend reading one after the other?  Would you like to see more twinned reviews like this on the blog?

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The Book Trail: The Russian Edition

I am beginning this episode of the Book Trail with a novel I read recently and very much enjoyed; my detailed review will be up in the next week or two, once I get around to typing it up!  As ever, I have used the Goodreads’ ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool to compose this list.

1. A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov 226378
In its adventurous happenings, its abductions, duels, and sexual intrigues, A Hero of Our Time looks backward to the tales of Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron, so beloved by Russian society in the 1820s and ’30s. In the character of its protagonist, Pechorin, the archetypal Russian antihero, Lermontov’s novel looks forward to the subsequent glories of a Russian literature that it helped, in great measure, to make possible.

 

2. The Queen of Spades and Other Stories by Alexander Pushkin
The Queen of Spades has long been acknowledged as one of the world’s greatest short stories, in which Pushkin explores the nature of obsession. The Tales of Belkin are witty parodies of sentimentalism, while Peter the Great’s Blackamoor is an early experiment with recreating the past. The Captain’s Daughter is a novel-length masterpiece which combines historical fiction in the manner of Sir Walter Scott with the devices of the Russian fairy-tale. The Introduction provides close readings of the stories and places them in their European literary context.

 

580433. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk by Nikolai Leskov
In this powerful and brutal short story, Leskov demonstrates the enduring truth of the Shakespearean archetype joltingly displaced to the heartland of Russia. Chastened and stifled by her marriage of convenience to a man twice her age, the young Katerina Lvovna goes yawning about the house, missing the barefoot freedom of her childhood, until she meets the feckless steward Sergei Filipych. Sergei proceeds to seduce Katerina, as he has done half the women in the town, not realizing that her passion, once freed, will attach to him so fiercely that Katerina will do anything to keep hold of him. Journalist and prose writer Nikolai Leskov is known for his powerful characterizations and the quintessentially Russian atmosphere of his stories.

 

4. The Golovlyov Family by M.E. Saltykov-Shchredin
Searingly hot in the summer, bitterly cold in the winter, the ancestral estate of the Golovlyov family is the end of the road. There Anna Petrovna rules with an iron hand over her servants and family-until she loses power to the relentless scheming of her hypocritical son Porphyry.   One of the great books of Russian literature, The Golovlyov Family is a vivid picture of a condemned and isolated outpost of civilization that, for contemporary readers, will recall the otherwordly reality of Macondo in Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.

 

5. The Queue by Vladimir Sorokin 2376088
Vladimir Sorokin’s first published novel, The Queue, is a sly comedy about the late Soviet “years of stagnation.” Thousands of citizens are in line for . . . nobody knows quite what, but the rumors are flying. Leather or suede? Jackets, jeans? Turkish, Swedish, maybe even American? It doesn’t matter–if anything is on sale, you better line up to buy it. Sorokin’s tour de force of ventriloquism and formal daring tells the whole story in snatches of unattributed dialogue, adding up to nothing less than the real voice of the people, overheard on the street as they joke and curse, fall in and out of love, slurp down ice cream or vodka, fill out crossword puzzles, even go to sleep and line up again in the morning as the queue drags on.

 

6. White Walls: Collected Stories by Tatyana Tolstaya
Tatyana Tolstaya’s short stories — with their unpredictable fairy-tale plots, appealingly eccentric characters, and stylistic abundance and flair — established her in the 1980s as one of modern Russia’s finest writers. Since then her work has been translated throughout the world. Edna O’Brien has called Tolstaya “an enchantress.” Anita Desai has spoken of her work’s “richness and ardent life.” Mixing heartbreak and humor, dizzying flights of fantasy and plunging descents to earth, Tolstaya is the natural successor in a great Russian literary lineage that includes Gogol, Yuri Olesha, Bulgakov, and Nabokov.  White Walls is the most comprehensive collection of Tolstaya’s short fiction to be published in English so far. It presents the contents of her two previous collections, On the Golden Porch and Sleepwalker in a Fog, along with several previously uncollected stories. Tolstaya writes of lonely children and lost love, of philosophers of the absurd and poets working as janitors, of angels and halfwits. She shows how the extraordinary will suddenly erupt in the midst of ordinary life, as she explores the human condition with a matchless combination of unbound imagination and unapologetic sympathy.

 

5892577. Soul by Andrei Platonov
The Soviet writer Andrey Platonov saw much of his work suppressed or censored in his lifetime. In recent decades, however, these lost works have reemerged, and the eerie poetry and poignant humanity of Platonov’s vision have become ever more clear. For Nadezhda Mandelstam and Joseph Brodsky, Platonov was the writer who most profoundly registered the spiritual shock of revolution. For a new generation of innovative post-Soviet Russian writers he figures as a daring explorer of word and world, the master of what has been called “alternative realism.” Depicting a devastated world that is both terrifying and sublime, Platonov is, without doubt, a universal writer who is as solitary and haunting as Kafka.  This volume gathers eight works that show Platonov at his tenderest, warmest, and subtlest. Among them are “The Return,” about an officer’s difficult homecoming at the end of World War II, described by Penelope Fitzgerald as one of “three great works of Russian literature of the millennium”; “The River Potudan,” a moving account of a troubled marriage; and the title novella, the extraordinary tale of a young man unexpectedly transformed by his return to his Asian birthplace, where he finds his people deprived not only of food and dwelling, but of memory and speech.

 

8. The Road: Stories, Journalism, and Essays by Vasily Grossman
The Road brings together short stories, journalism, essays, and letters by Vasily Grossman, the author of Life and Fate, providing new insight into the life and work of this extraordinary writer. The stories range from Grossman’s first success, “In the Town of Berdichev,” a piercing reckoning with the cost of war, to such haunting later works as “Mama,” based on the life of a girl who was adopted at the height of the Great Terror by the head of the NKVD and packed off to an orphanage after her father’s downfall. The girl grows up struggling with the discovery that the parents she cherishes in memory are part of a collective nightmare that everyone else wishes to forget. The Road also includes the complete text of Grossman’s harrowing report from Treblinka, one of the first anatomies of the workings of a death camp; “The Sistine Madonna,” a reflection on art and atrocity; as well as two heartbreaking letters that Grossman wrote to his mother after her death at the hands of the Nazis and carried with him for the rest of his life.

 

Which of these books pique your interest?  Have you read any of them before?

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